As I’ve complained many times before, Richard Rorty’s theory of truth in Irony, Contingeny and Solidarity is radically logocentric.

Rorty sets up change of language, specifically in our choice and use of metaphors, as the driving force behind the evolution of truth. We perceive the history of our language games culminating in the language game we use today as progress toward knowledge of truth.

He contrasts this with an opposing conception of language as “a medium which is gradually taking on the true shape of the true world or the true self.”

The goal is to shed all external referees of truth, whether that arbiter is God, Nature, Logic or anything that stands outside humankind and imposes judgment, and to finally take responsible for our own truth, and also to claim our creative freedom to the fullest extent. We evolve our own language games by way of our own language games, and are limited only by what the players of the language game can and will do with their language.

To be fair, Rorty wrote a lot of books and essays, and I have only read some of it. I am aware he took science very seriously, and also that he also sometimes over-stated positions primarily for rhetorical reasons. I am assuming that what I have said above is not doing full justice to Rorty’s most carefully stated positions.

What I am more interested in here, is this: I am not aware of him ever taking a third position that is compatible with his project, but which can (maybe boringly) give the nonlinguistic world its due in our evolving conceptions of truth. I suspect he never considered it, and that if he had, he might have preferred it.

Rorty was incredibly smart, so I make this claim with appropriately shaking knees.

This third position, which I learned from Bruno Latour, refuses to treat the external world as one monolithic being capable of acting as a referee, but nonetheless treats it as something that does do quite a bit of “judging” of different sorts.

Latour’s external world is made of networks of human and non-human actors causing one another to act. He has described these networks in political terms. Human and non-human actors alike enlist one another, resist one another, combine forces and act as one, gain strength, lose strength, become weak, break apart and disintegrate. Human life is largely a matter of creating, extending and redirecting networks of heterogeneous beings. Among these beings are words (which exist within networks of words, called languages) which are connected to networks of objects, people, other words, etc.

Nature, then, is a category that refers to a loose collection of diverse actors in diverse networks. When we engage in science, what we are doing, in effect, is collaborating with non-human actors to understand how they act on other actors, and fit into actual or possible networks. This activity can be described as working to extend our democracy to non-human actors and find ways to involve them in the networks that constitute our lives. In this way, the myriad beings we include in “nature” do in fact interact directly with our language and help shape it, but without standing outside language as a model for the form language should take. Nature and words are strung together, woven together, act together. If the words we choose form shoddy networks with the entities they are suppose to interact with, “false”, “untrue” or “less true” are pretty good words to describe what is happening. A whole language that puts words into strong and extensive networks with one another, with people and nonhuman entities really can be judged as truer than one that creates networks that cannot extend without tapering or disintegrating.

No, with this third view, which can be called an “ontocratic theory of truth” does not survive as what we took it to be, but is does survive as something that connects human beings to a reality that extends beyond us and our words. And if we want our words to do more for us than to win agreement from other people, that is an extremely important capability.

It’s probably not enough for the staunchest anti-relativists, but it most certainly avoids many of the worst objections to relativism, at least the ones that bother me me most, while preserving the most important advantages of relativism, which is pluralism and pluralism’s creative freedom of thought.

3 thoughts on “Ontocracy

  1. I think that Rorty would have absolutely no problem with your third view, he might have even championed it if given the chance. However, I think he would claim that your third view is nonetheless saturated with language:

    “He has <> these networks in political terms.”
    “This activity can be <> as working to extend our democracy to non-human actors and find ways to involve them in the networks that constitute our lives.”

    Rorty would politely suggest that your third view is more aptly thought of as a “third description”. And since it it a description, it is embodied in language. Even though this view pays much more attention to the details of “networks of human and non-human actors causing one another to act”, all these interactions are ultimately described in language.

    In that sense, language for Rorty is the “one tool to rule them all”. Even though we can causally interact with the world, our description of that set of interactions as “networks of human and non-human actors causing one another to act” is just that–a description–in a language.

    I think the worst one can say about Rorty is that he did publish any sociology papers. If he had, I think they could have read a lot like Latour’s. I don’t see anything that Latour wrote as contradicting Rorty’s worldview.

    1. “Rorty would politely suggest that your third view is more aptly thought of as a ‘third description’. And since it it a description, it is embodied in language.” — Nick, in an earlier draft of this post I acknowledged that much of what I’m critiquing is mostly a matter of emphasis. I would say the preference for calling something a description or calling it a view comes down to exactly the kind of emphasis I am talking about. What I want a philosophy to do is to start with words and end in second-natural intuitions. I want the words to scaffold intellectual moves which are not even essentially verbal. I want philosophies to lead me me spontaneously to perceive differently, to feel differently, to act differently, to design differently. The purpose of a philosophy, for me, is to change for the better my worldview/lifeworld/enworldment at the wordless faith layer that directs my use of words, yes — but also my use of pens, of paint brushes, of guitars, of knives, of my tactility, of my humor. I want to thin, and where possible, to eliminate that intervening layer of words that add instructions to how I instruct my computer to do what I want. Unlike most philosophers, I think it is unnecessary (at least not “better”) to take apart ideas that are working well. Someone who runs around harassing people, and making them feel stupid, by disassembling their concepts and mocking them when they are unable to reassemble them, is probably not going to be invited to many parties (and if they are they should check their drinks, coz someone might slip them some hemlock). Heidegger famously pointed out that well-functioning tools are ready-to-hand for us, invisible extensions of our selves, and normally only became objects when they stopped functioning and attracted inspection. If we are going to be consistent instrumentalists, I think the same is true for our concepts and our language. I would rather inspect, disassemble those words that are obtrusive and fail to do things I need them to do, or where I notice what I am doing is poorly served by the descriptions people offer or expect of them. I think when philosophers do this kind of work, their efforts are valuable to other people besides other philosophers. When the primarily focus on taking apart words that are working so well that people don’t even realize they can be taken apart at all, they become more useful to other philosophers, who are fascinated by the ideas (or redescriptions) as objects. I’m enough of a designer (and not enough of a mathematician) to become impatient if I don’t sense a fairly immediate pragmatic consequence to whatever I’m working on or reading about.

      Again, in this case, the practical consequence I am most excited about is philosophy that helps us develop second natural intuitions which combine as faiths which give us new enworldments and new ways to engage reality. Redescriptions are the most important means to this end, and further redescriptions are one byproduct of it, but my main hope is new ways of living where the need to verbalize all actions is limited and in some places, reduced as closely as possible to nil.

    2. And I agree entirely that Latour is uncannily compatible with Rorty. I don’t think Rorty ever thought out Latour’s ideas, though, or even assumed them. I just think Latour was working Pragmatically, and that Rorty’s intellectual discipline makes his work “loose couple” with similarly disciplined Pragmatist work. Am I using the concept correctly? The Pragmatist maxim is the thinnest, most fruitful middle, that supports vast abstract analyses and syntheses at the (Peircean/Wittgenstinian) top and vast concrete practical applications toward the (Jamesean/Latourian) bottom?